IMMERSIVE VIRTUALITY GETS REAL As VR and AR become affordable to all, business finds powerful ways to use them
With the introduction of low-cost viewers, 2016 has been awash in hype about virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and other immersive virtuality (iV) technologies. Less hyped, however, is that many of the world’s biggest companies have been using high-end versions of these technologies for decades. While newcomers to iV begin to climb the learning curve, these innovators are extending their leads.
A soldier sits stiffly in a military vehicle, barely aware of the passing desert landscape. Without warning, the road erupts in charred smoke and chaos.
Unlike the first time the soldier experienced this scene, however, the vehicle, landscape and explosion aren’t real. Instead, he’s safe in a doctor’s office, wearing a virtual reality headset as part of a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment developed by researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies
As the soldier works to recover from his trauma, a prospective automobile buyer on the other side of the Atlantic dons a similar headset and tests combinations of automotive options – only a few of which are available in the local inventory – before ordering her perfect vehicle.
In their home, a couple shops for furniture, walking around a virtual sofa in a VR model of their living room. In a factory, a worker views a complex array of parts through augmented reality glasses, then assembles them based on the instructions in his field of vision.
“VR IS REVOLUTIONIZING FIELDS ACROSS EVERYDAY LIFE – AREAS LIKE MEDICINE, ARCHITECTURE, EDUCATION, PRODUCT DESIGN AND RETAILING.”DIRECTOR, ENTERPRISE VR, NVIDIA
Almost overnight, new ways to use augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) – known collectively as immersive virtuality (iV) – are popping up everywhere.
“We’re hearing from every industry,” said David Weinstein, director of Enterprise VR for NVIDIA. “VR is revolutionizing fields across everyday life – areas like medicine, architecture, education, product design and retailing. NVIDIA has focused on creating solutions for enterprises and developers in these industries to ensure the highest level of performance, photo realism and immersion, enabling businesses to seamlessly incorporate VR into their design and production workflows.”
In July 2015, research firm Gartner classified both AR and VR on its annual Emerging Technologies hype cycle as having reached the “trough of disillusionment,” a dip that occurs when overhyped technologies don’t meet expectations. Far from being a negative, however, the trough indicates that technologies are poised to achieve real productivity – as soon as businesses gain enough experience with them.
Just a year later, when Gartner released the 2016 hype cycle, Oculus, HTC, Google, Samsung and others had used low-cost smartphone technology to make head-mounted displays (HMDs) widely affordable. Gartner moved VR to its “slope of enlightenment,” reflecting the technology’s expanding practical applications; AR remained in the trough, but moved closer to the slope.
Up next for VR and AR on Gartner’s cycle: “the plateau of productivity,” when adoption rates will reach 20-30% of market potential. The analyst firm estimates that it will take VR and AR just 5-10 years to become a routine part of everyday business.
“VR PROMOTES A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH.
COLLABORATION REQUIRES A CHANGE OF CULTURE…
SO THE EARLIER YOU START, THE BETTER IT IS.”
International finance company Goldman Sachs sees big growth for both technologies in its 2016 “Profiles of Innovation” report on AR and VR. While 2016 revenues will be almost exclusively hardware sales, Goldman’s “base case” (moderate) projection for iV sales by 2025 is US$80 billion, including US$45 billion in hardware and US$35 billion in software.
Goldman Sachs predicts 75% of spending will be focused on VR, with 25% going to AR; 54% of spending will be on consumer applications, with 46% spent on enterprise and public sector applications.
When CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) was introduced in 1992, the VR technology was available only to the largest, wealthiest organizations. Years of R&D and investment, however, are making VR available to companies of all sizes.
“After several years (of working to create an affordable HMD) it became the truth, not just for gaming but as a new way to interact with information,” said Hervé Fontaine, vice president of B2B Virtual Reality for HTC Vive. “Not just ‘flat’ information, but information in 3D so it looks real.”
With many businesses already beginning to incorporate iV into their daily operations, experts agree that the time available for catching up is growing short.
“COMPLEX TECHNICAL RESEARCH CAN BE CHALLENGING TO COMMUNICATE. SHOW SOMEONE IN VR, HOWEVER, AND THEY GO AWAY REMEMBERING WHAT YOU'RE DOING AND WHY. THAT'S POWERFUL”MEDICAL PHYSICS LECTURER, INSIGNEO INSTITUTE FOR IN SILICO MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF SHEFFIELD
“The use of virtual reality calls for changes in the way a company works, and changing working habits and processes takes time,” said Pascal Therond, co-founder of Kalista, a consulting firm with offices in France and the UK that specializes in retail merchandising, with a growing practice in VR. “A lot of organizations still work in separate silos, whereas VR promotes a collaborative approach. Collaboration requires a change of culture, and this takes even more time than a mere change of organization. So the earlier you start, the better it is.
“Beyond that, we’re still in the early stages of VR and AR, so of course there’s a lot to be gained in a testand-learn approach to remain ahead of the competitors and potential disrupters on the learning curve.”
iV is powerful because it creates an emotional experience that can be more transformative than any other medium.
“Until you experience VR, it’s impossible to describe,” said John W. Fenner, a medical physics lecturer with the Insigneo Institute for in silico medicine at the University of Sheffield (UK). The institute supports a European Union initiative intent on developing a Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) – a precise computational model of every system in the human body.
“Certainly, VR is a powerful way of bringing the public into your research and helping them understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and giving them an experience they don’t forget,” Fenner said. “Complex technical research can be challenging to communicate. Show someone in VR, however, and they go away remembering what you’re doing and why. That’s powerful.”
And now, thanks to HMDs, VR is available everywhere.
“You don’t need a CAVE anymore,” Fenner said. “You can do VR on a phone with Google Cardboard. If it becomes a commodity and everybody has it, it will change everything. Engaging with clinicians presents some challenges, as there are many demands on their time. However, the novelty of VR means we have a steady queue of people knocking on our door, interested in the potential of this technology.”
iV’s power to communicate also is drawing attention from educators at all levels.
zSpace provides educational and medical institutions with “CAVE on a table” VR systems. Using established libraries of 3D models, schoolchildren can repeatedly dissect a digital frog, a feat impossible with a real frog. In medicine, rather than examining an ideal, generic heart, medical professionals can model a patient’s specific organ and examine it for anomalies in VR.
“It’s actually your heart they’re building from real data, and they can experiment without risk,” said Pete Johnson, zSpace vice president of Strategic Business Development. “‘What if you replaced this valve or that one? What’s the best approach?’ There’s a whole host of benefits when you can replicate the real world.”
As iV takes hold in medicine and education, corporations are using it to perform complex processes or communicate a vision.
B2B companies that design in 3D have massive libraries of geometrically accurate models, previously viewable only on 2D computer screens. With iV, these models can now be used to drive fully immersive experiences that open up a world of possibilities, from enriched product design to transformative sales and marketing strategies.
“FOR THE FIRST TIME, VR IS NOT LIMITED TO LARGE CORPORATES. THEIR SMALL SUBCONTRACTORS AND PARTNERS CAN NOW USE VR AS WELL.”VICE PRESIDENT, B2B VIRTUAL REALITY, HTC VIVE
Brazil-based aircraft manufacturer Embraer has already advanced through several iterations of iV to generate realistic virtual environments used to perfect its airplane designs.
“Our initial application of virtual reality was a CAVE solution, but only physically present members could view the models and interaction was limited to one system user,” said Paulo Pires, managing director of the Embraer Engineering & Technology Center USA in Florida. Those limitations are gone, however, in Embraer’s new mixed reality room.
“Integration of our 3D CAD models with our immersive design review process is now simple and seamless,” Pires said. “We have accelerated product development through immersive design review in a virtual space that comprises both digital components and physical models. Participants interact with virtual models and about a dozen other team members, regardless of physical location. A variety of design configurations may be inspected and annotated by all participants simultaneously.”
Collaboration in virtual reality is yielding significant benefits, Pires said. “Time and budget savings in the production and evaluations of physical models in carpentry and metal shops, as well as 3D printing, are already recognized. The realization of ROI benefits validates the principal objective of the investment, which is to efficiently accelerate product development.”
Up next for Embraer: applying iV to planning and simulation of all production processes and aircraft maintenance procedures, as well as personalized interior designs created in collaboration with its clients for private jets.
France-based Diota, which specializes in bringing iV solutions to industrial processes, is improving manufacturing accuracy and productivity by helping companies replace traditional instruction manuals with AR.
When parts are viewed through tablets, AR projection systems or glasses equipped with Diota’s software, work instructions displayed appear on the objects themselves. Workers no longer need to look away from what they are doing to see the next step in an instruction manual. The displays can locate the exact spot to drill or cut, or show the amount of torque to apply.
“Workers have to perform some very complex tasks,” Diota co-founder Lionnel Joussemet said. “It’s important for them to understand what they have to do. When a use case is adapted for augmented reality we observe that workers are very happy to discover and adapt to this technology.”
At NVIDIA, Weinstein sees similar enthusiasm for AR.
“I think AR will dominate VR for professional applications,” Weinstein said. “I don’t always want to put on an HMD and go into a virtual world. A lot of times I just want to overlay information on my real world. We’ll all get used to having glasses that have graphic overlays – to be able to see supply levels on the factory floor, for example, or know where the pipes are behind the ceiling.”
In consumer-oriented settings, iV enables an immediate and ongoing feedback loop, increasing the ability of businesses to delight their buyers.
“We know that understanding a 2D blueprint is sometimes not so easy for customers, so we’ve progressively added 3D solutions, with the possibility to virtually visit our apartments on the Web,” said Thomas Penet, vice president of Marketing for Altarea Cogedim, a French company that specializes in housing and office developments. “The implementation of VR was a progressive evolution of that capability.”
VR helps Altarea Cogedim’s customers fully perceive what they will receive, even before a home or apartment is built, helping to eliminate unpleasant surprises on both sides of the transaction.
“WITH VR, WE REARRANGE THE VITUAL PRODUCTS OR MOVE SOME VIRTUAL SHELVES AND THE NEW STORE DISPLAY IS READY TO TEST”DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, SILAB
iV also is helping retailers and product makers plan how to display products to their best advantage. Shopping Innovation Lab (SILAB), a laboratory in northern France that focuses on accelerating innovation to address purchasing behavior, uses iV to create a better shopping experience. Using a combination of VR headsets, eye tracking solutions and a CAVE, SILAB helps retailers and product manufacturers gauge how consumers will react to displays.
“We use our CAVE and a 3D merchandising software solution to validate new store designs,” said Jean-Michel Flamant, SILAB’s director of development. “This means a considerable gain in productivity. Previously, if we discovered that the physical layout wasn’t working, we’d have to start over from scratch. With VR, we rearrange the virtual products or move some virtual shelves, and the new store display is ready to test.”
In the months ahead, the potential applications for iV will only expand as small and medium businesses begin to experiment with its capabilities and large enterprises continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
“The past 18 months have witnessed a huge step forward, with many manufacturing industries expressing interest in VR,” HTC’s Fontaine said. “HMDs like the Vive Business Edition, which was specifically adapted to typical enterprise requirements, allow anyone using 3D software to view their model in VR. This means they don’t need to build a physical prototype to look for mistakes, saving them lots of time and money. So for the first time, VR is not limited to large companies.” That expansion is important, Fontaine said, because collaboration by large enterprises, such as automotive and aerospace manufacturers, with their suppliers and partners is critical to designing and building new models.
“While the initial uses are mostly linked to visualization, VR will enable long-distance collaboration in a massive way,” Fontaine said. “This is comparable to the jump from email to instant messaging because you can go from planned, physically present meetings to instant meetings with distributed participants – even customers. VR is poised to take off as a business tool to work faster, better, in a collaborative way, wherever we are.”Back to top